Stating that there are “ethical reasons” against eating meat strongly implies that eating meat is immoral. Furthermore, it implies that those who do eat meat should be judged as immoral for doing so. Some vegetarians and vegans might resist these implications. One might claim that giving up meat is just a “personal choice” and others are free to eat what they want. To quote New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (who is a vegan), “This is the United States of America, and I, for one, believe in our freedom to choose. So, I don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets; that’s just not how I live” (1). While there may be many vegans and vegetarians that hold this this position, is it defensible?
First, it is important to define two important terms. Ethical veganism is the view which states one ought to avoid purchasing and consuming animal products in order to reduce unnecessary animal cruelty and suffering.* Ethical vegans reject the idea that animals are mere things for humans to use and abuse for entertainment or to maximize human taste pleasure. Animals should be treated as subjects not objects. We can contrast ethical veganism with carnism. Carnism is the view which states that eating meat and using animals is morally permissible. Carnism is usually defended by appealing to the intellectual superiority of humans over other animals or skepticism about animal minds (e.g. animals don’t feel pain).
The pro-choice position
Pro-choice vegan advocates maintain that ethical veganism is true, but that one should be tolerant of carnists. On a common conception, tolerance requires treating others with respect, even if they have opposing values and beliefs that you find indefensible. If this is what vegans and vegetarians mean by tolerance, then there is no issue. But the pro-choice vegan advocates seem to accept a much broader conception of tolerance. Not only should we show respect to those who we disagree with, we should not even try to persuade them that carnism is indefensible or tell them that their eating habits are immoral. Instead, some ethical vegans endorse “freedom of choice” when it comes to eating habits. They believe that it is wrong to consume animal products because it normalizes and perpetuates animal cruelty on a massive scale, but act as if it is fine when other people do it. For example, ethical vegans who passively eat dinner with people who are eating meat. To see why this is a peculiar position (if it’s not already obvious), consider a parallel case.
Imagine that a woman (A) who recently had an abortion enters a discussion with another woman (B) who is pro-life advocate. First, B argues that fetuses have a right-to-life and that abortion is seriously immoral, equivalent to murdering an innocent adult. B also maintains that there are no special circumstances (e.g. rape or incest) that would provide moral justification for having an abortion. Then, A informs B that she just recently had an abortion because she had changed her mind about wanting to have children.
What should B think about A’s decision, given her moral beliefs? Here are two possible responses:
R1: While I strongly believe what A did was seriously immoral, I am pro-choice when it comes to ethical decision making. I think you should be free to engage in immoral behavior if you want to, even if it does harm or violate the rights of others.
R2: What A did was seriously wrong! A’s decision was morally indefensible as it violated the rights of an innocent human. You can’t just murder someone because it’s convenient for you!
While you should consult your own intuitions, I think it’s clear that R2 is the rational response to the situation. You might think that it would be socially inappropriate or rude to morally condemn A, but have such thoughts are perfectly reasonable given the moral beliefs of B and the actions of A. Other parallel cases could be developed by substituting the content of the dialogue with other moral issues. Would it make sense for an 18th century abolitionist to have been “pro-choice” about slaveholding? Or a women’s rights activist to be “pro-choice” about human rights? If not, then why would it make sense for ethical veganism to be consistent with being pro-choice?
1) Moral uncertainty: Ethical vegans are tolerant of others’ behavior because they’re not sure their position is correct. There are some doubts whether it’s wrong to kill or harm animals, and having these doubts warrants the “pro-choice” outlook. After all, ethical vegans might hold false beliefs (e.g. beliefs about nutrition or animal minds).
Response: One could raise possible doubts about any position. That does not mean we aren’t justified in having beliefs. In cases where there are lots of unknowns, adopting an agnostic stance makes sense. But those who accept ethical veganism aren’t typically agnostics. If they accept ethical veganism, they should believe that there are strong reasons for accepting it.
2) Differing degrees of wrongness: One might think that carnism is morally indefensible but hold that it isn’t seriously wrong.
Response: Perhaps ethical vegans believe that abstaining from eating meat is morally praiseworthy rather than obligatory. Maybe meat eating is perceived to be morally equivalent to stealing pirated music or adultery, rather than acts of murder or violence against humans. It’s immoral, but not so immoral that it should cause us to criticize those who engage in such behavior. It would be interesting to try and empirically gauge how wrong vegans and vegetarians consider meat eating to be. If ethical vegans don’t believe that eating meat is seriously wrong, it could potentially reconcile the conflict between being “pro-choice” and an ethical vegan.
3) Moral ignorance: One might think that carnism is morally indefensible but acknowledge that most people haven’t come to that realization, either because they haven’t had the time to really think about it or haven’t been exposed to enough information.
Response: Ignorance of the wrongness of an action or practice can excuse one’s behavior. But if ethical vegans believe most people are ignorant about the meat industry, shouldn’t they try to inform them? It may well be true that most people aren’t informed, but how would that justify a “pro-choice” position?
I have argued that those who are serious about ethical veganism, but adopt a pro-choice stance, are being inconsistent. If someone believes an action is morally wrong, and then they see someone engaging in that action, they should judge that person’s action to be wrong and if possible, try to influence their behavior. Ethical vegans could avoid the inconsistency by appealing to moral uncertainty or by adopting a position which holds that veganism is praiseworthy rather than morally obligatory.
There's still a lot to be said about what consistent ethical vegans should do to influence others' behavior. Should all ethical vegans become activists? Should they refuse to eat dinner with meat eaters? Should they offer their family and friends pamplets to inform them about factory farms? I won't take a stance on these issues here, as I am still not sure what the most effective means of moral persuasion are. What I do know is that being a passive bystander around meat eaters will likely prolong the social acceptance of eating meat. As philosopher Michael Huemer observes, "for most of the wrongs of the past--slavery, colonialism, the oppression of women--the victims could and did speak up. In the present case, the victims will never be able to act or speak for themselves. There is no one to speak against what we humans are doing, except us. So we have to do it. If we don't it will never stop" (Huemer 2019).
I suspect that many of the tactics used by modern animal rights activists (e.g. protesting inside restaurants, jumping on stage at political rallies) are counterproductive and often result in a backfire effect. To reach conclusions about these more practical issues, we should shift our attention towards the psychological sciences. Research on moral persuasion, self-control, peer pressure, and belief formation, will likely be useful when deciding upon the right strategies. Moral philosophy can only take us so far.
Huemer, M. (2019). Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism. Routledge.